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United States v. Cephas

June 4, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Baylson, J.


Presently before the Court is Defendant's Motion for Judgment of Acquittal under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 29(c), or, in the alternative, for a New Trial under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 33. For the following reasons, the Court denies the motion.

I. Facts and Procedural History

On August 28, 2008, after a three-day trial presided over by Judge Giles of this Court, a jury found Defendant Darren Cephas guilty of several charges: (1) possession with the intent to distribute more than 500 grams of cocaine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(B); (2) possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1); and (3) felon in possession of a firearm, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1).All three charges derived from contraband obtained from a Chester, Pennsylvania house that was admittedly owned by Defendant. At trial, the government presented various evidence from which, it argued, the jury could infer that Defendant constructively possessed the seized contraband.

On two separate occasions during trial-once at the close of the government's case-in-chief and again after the government's rebuttal-Defendant moved for judgment of acquittal under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 29. Defendant asserted that the government had not presented sufficient evidence to prove that Defendant had possessed either the drugs or guns seized from the house. Judge Giles denied both motions. (N.T. Pgs. 88-89, Aug. 26, 2008; N.T. 14, Aug. 27, 2008). Defendant has now filed a renewed Motion for Judgment of Acquittal on the same grounds. Defendant contends that the government presented no evidence directly linking him to the contraband or the backpack in which the contraband was found; rather, the government only offered evidence showing that Defendant owned the house from which the evidence was seized. According to Defendant, the government's evidence did not show that Defendant lived at the house on a regular basis at the time of the search or that he exercised any control over the contraband found in the house. Absent such evidence, Defendant argued the government had failed to prove that Defendant constructively possessed the seized contraband.

Defendant has also moved, in the alternative, for a new trial under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 33. Defendant argues the Court improperly refused to grant Defendant's request for a continuance to procure a witness that would have testified regarding the occupation of the house by a lessee rather than Defendant. Judge Giles had granted a request for a continuance at the end of the second day of trial, allowing the defense to find and serve the witness before the third and final day of trial. However, Judge Giles denied Defendant's second request for a continuance, made the morning of the third day, on grounds of delay and unfairness to the jury, when the witness had not been produced by that time.

In his motion for a new trial, Defendant also asserts that Judge Giles improperly excluded evidence that the alleged lessee of the house in question had been murdered shortly after the execution of the search warrant. Such evidence, according to Defendant, could have been used by the jury to infer that the lessee was using the property as a stash house and was the true party responsible for the contraband.

II. Legal Standards

A. Motion for Judgment of Acquittal under Fed. R. Crim. P. 29(c)

Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 29(c) provides that "if the jury has returned a guilty verdict, the court may set aside the verdict and enter an acquittal." Fed. R. Crim. P. 29(c)(2). In ruling on a motion for acquittal based on insufficiency of the evidence, the court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the government and "presume that the jury properly evaluated the credibility of witnesses, found the facts, and drew rational inferences." United States v. Wasserson, 418 F.3d 225, 237 (3d Cir. 2005) (citing United States v. Iafelice, 978 F.2d 92, 94 (3d Cir.1992)). Furthermore, the court must "sustain the verdict if any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt." U.S. v. Cunningham, 517 F.3d 175, 177 (3d Cir. 2008) (internal citations omitted). It is the court's duty, therefore, to "independently re-examine the record and determine as a matter of law whether the evidence could support an inference of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt." United States v. Rich, 326 F. Supp. 2d 670, 673 (E.D. Pa. 2004) (citing United States v. Ashfield, 735 F.2d 101, 106 (3d Cir.1984)). In so doing, the court may not substitute its opinion for that of the jury and is limited to determining whether the jury made a permissible conclusion. Id.

B. Motion for a New Trial under Fed. R. Crim. P. 33

Under Rule 33, a court "may vacate any judgment and grant a new trial if the interest of justice so requires." Fed. R. Crim. P. 33. Within its discretion, the court may grant a new trial only if it believes that "there is a serious danger that a miscarriage of justice has occurred-that is, that an innocent person has been convicted." United States v. Johnson, 302 F.3d 139, 150 (3d Cir. 2002). Additionally, the court must grant a new trial if errors occurred during the original trial, and it is reasonably possible that such errors substantially influenced the jury's decision. See United States v. Mastro, 570 F. Supp. 1388, 1390 (E.D. Pa. 1983); United States. v. Newmark, 2008 WL 927961, *32 (E.D. Pa. April 04, 2008) (Pratter, J.). "Unlike an insufficiency of the evidence claim, when a district court evaluates a Rule 33 motion it does not view the evidence favorably to the Government but instead exercises its own judgment in assessing the Government's case." Johnson, 302 F.3d at 150 (internal citations omitted). Furthermore, the Third Circuit has explained that "motions for new trials are disfavored and are only granted with great caution and at the discretion of the trial court." United States v. Martinez, 69 Fed. Appx. 513, 516 (3d Cir. 2003) (citing United States v. Allen, 554 F.2d 398, 403 (10th Cir. 1977)).

III. Evidence Presented at Trial

A. Evidence Pertaining to the Seized Contraband

The government argued at trial that Defendant constructively possessed a backpack, containingdrugs and firearms, as well as additional amounts of separately packaged drugs, all of which were seized from a house owned by Defendant. The government presented evidence that the deed to the property in question, located at 333 Kerlin Street in Chester, Delaware County, Pennsylvania, was held by Defendant, and Defendant agreed to stipulate that he owned the property. (N.T. Pgs. 35-36, Aug. 26, 2008).

The government offered extensive evidence concerning the search conducted at 333 Kerlin Street and the contraband seized during that search. According to the testimony of the supervising officer, Officer Rosen, the search warrant was executed slightly after 6:00 AM on April 26, 2007, by several officers from the Municipal County Drug Task Force. (N.T. Pg. 33, Aug. 25, 2008). During the search, a black backpack was discovered on a flight of stairs leading to the basement of the property, and two cans of acetone were found next to the backpack. (N.T. Pg. 36, Aug. 25, 2008). The ...

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